Career

Get into biz with your bestie

You shared clothes, confidences, maybe a boyfriend or two. So it makes total sense to start up a business with your BFF, right (Cara and Rita are doing it)? NYC chef Phoebe Lapine thought so too, but ended up getting a professional divorce. You can avoid a similar ending with a few precautions.

My best friend and I started cooking together back in high school. It was awesome. We spent many afternoons baking (and eating too many oatmeal-chocolate-chip biscuits). Over the years, it was the time we spent in the kitchen, talking for hours, that became the core of our friendship.

I took a corporate job after graduating from college, but the fake walls of my cubicle stifled my creativity. I escaped by feeding my friends … and, thankfully, my best friend was right there with me. We catered our good friend’s 24th birthday, making crostini, peanut noodles and Manchurian cauliflower for 40 people. I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time.

Then, with relatives giving me stress about my career, my cousin asked me what I would do if I could do anything. Pouting, I said, “I don’t know. Write a cookbook, I guess.” She told me to quit whining and do it. The next morning, I bought a domain name and emailed my friend to tell her we were starting a food blog together.

Things started great. We’d sneak out in the middle of the day to meet at cafés and talk through ideas. After the website gained a following, literary agents starting courting us, and nine months later, book deal in hand, we left our offices to work in the kitchen full-time. I was living the dream: going to work with my best friend and crafting a career based on my passion.

But when the first pay cheque came, everything changed.

Read Phoebe’s blog at feedmephoebe.com.

We wanted the same thing for our blog and book, but we disagreed about how to spend our small advance. Should we reinvest in the company or try to save our money while we had it? Meanwhile, the expenses – redesigning our blog, material for our book, basic supplies for life – were piling up.

In order to support ourselves, we started doing other work on the side – tutoring, private cheffing, food styling. Things became tense as we started making mental notes of our contributions and stopped seeing each other regularly.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just what happened. After all those avoided conversations, our issues erupted in a blow-up at a bakery, and we finally realised that we wanted completely different things from each other, and for the future of our business.

We had drifted apart, and now we were breaking up.

Because we had never discussed an exit strategy – we had no written partnership agreement or professional boundaries set – we found ourselves trading settlement-agreement drafts through our lawyers. After weeks of back-and-forth, I sold my half of the business to her, and we dissolved our partnership. The biggest thing I lost, though, was my friend.

As I spent the following months trying to figure out my next chapter, I came to recognise my joint venture in business and friendship wasn’t a failure but something very human.

We were young and idealistic. We loved each other, so we didn’t take proper precautions as businesspeople. Now that I have some perspective, I’m grateful for all of it. We made an amazing book that I’m really proud of, and the work was more meaningful because it was born out of love.

This might surprise you, but I haven’t given up on the idea of going into business with someone who I care about. I’m a collaborative person, and I miss that. I just know that next time, I’ll have the tools to guide me through the process with my eyes open.

Can this work? Steps to take before you sign for a small-business loan with your BFF…

Start with baby steps Test the water by doing a project that has a defined beginning and end, says Debbie Phillips, a life coach and founder of Women on Fire. “You can evaluate that and see how well you work together before you invest all the time and energy in starting a business.”

Determine your roles Friendship works well when people are similar, but a business partnership can benefit from personalities that naturally create checks and balances. “Match a big picture person with someone who loves details,” says Phillips. “You can move twice as fast when you have everything covered.” Put responsibilities in writing and review those roles every few months. Phillips suggests writing brief updates of daily accomplishments to keep each other connected and motivated.

Give yourself a way out Draft a partnership agreement. “You may start on the same page, but you can end up having radically different visions,” says Emily Cohen, an independent business consultant. “Lawyers are great at figuring out what the worst-case scenario is, and starting a conversation around it.”

Find a Referee An impartial third party, like a business consultant, can help you and your partner solve problems in a strategic way. “Find an adviser who really believes in both of you, and who understands your business, for when growing pains do arise,” says Bianca Caampued, who started up Small Girls PR with her best friend.

Schedule Check-ins Discuss uncomfortable topics during sit-downs, but frame the issues in a positive way. “It’s not like we’re arguing,” says Mallory Blair, the other half of Small Girls PR. “We ask, ‘How do we make this work so that we’re both happy?’”

Make time for friendship In the office, take the friendship off the table. But after-hours, have some work-free fun. “The reason Bianca and I work so well together is that there’s a certain magic when the two of us are together – but we’re also having adventures that have nothing to do with work,” says Blair. “We’re having fun and living in New York in our twenties, and going on this wild ride together.”

Words by Sara Austin